Archive for January, 2015

Schopenhauer on “Personality, or What a Man is”

January 17, 2015

Over the past years, I have noticed a steady decline in my eagerness to seek the company of other people. I still maintain a tight-knit cluster of bosom friends to whom I’d spill any secret or idea, but the frequency to which I have sought them out is in exponential decay. I deeply feel as though this has not been a conscious effort on my behalf, rather, it might be a subconscious rationalization I have developed a habit of making: It is more work and effort and risk and time involved in conducting arrangements to spend time with people. Indeed, this is surely selfish, but I highly prefer people to seek me out. I have a million things I want to read, do, think about, talk about, etc. Yet, I feel highly unmotivated to pursue these endeavors in the company of my peers. QI feel “apart” from my peers, friends, family, coworkers, etc. There is a barrier between myself and other people, one which I’d like to explore here.

I’d like to spend my limited time learning from people who have read, thought, and experienced more than I have. My friends are great and fun, but I often find little-to-no interest or reciprocation in my philosophical and scientific enthusiasm. Even finding someone who still reads (outside of college) is a needle in a haystack. Essentially, it is in the long-term more desirable to cultivate my mind than my “spirit” (cringe at the word, but I don’t know what else to call it).

I was reading some essays by Arthur Schopenhauer this morning and I stumbled across something that described my predicament almost perfectly: “a large endowment of intellect tends to estrange the man who has it from other people and their doings; for the more a man has in himself, the less he will be able to find in them; and the hundred things in which they take delight, he will think shallow and insipid.” Now of course this sounds pretentious, and perhaps to a degree it is, but especially in the wider public sphere, the kinds of things average people “take delight” in, I find “shallow and insipid.” For example: As a kid, I played sports for several years and took great interest in televised sports. But now sports seem to me one long advertisement, and chatter about sports seems completely arbitrary, meaningless, and vapid. Another example is the degree of selection and contemplation the average American puts into choosing the media they consume: none. Pop culture movies and music are, broadly speaking, extremely cookie cutter (Romance and Superhero movies) or predictable (turn on any radio station). The news media tends to varying degrees of sensationalized, fleeting news stories or, even worse, scandals. The kind of daily conversations most people participate in have no stake in them. That is, the conversation is not vital. In fact, this routine, bland kind of small talk seems directly reminiscent of Martin Heidegger’s “the they,” which casts the entirety of society as one big way to avoid thinking about the inevitability of death. Now that sounds morbid, so to clean it up a bit, the “they” effectively tries to pretend that death is just a thing that happens to other people, as we see on television, deaths are treated as “events” which do not happen to “us.” This willful obfuscation results in daily activities, routines, and indeed, small talk becoming weak-minded and overly casual. I have a strong distaste, not condescension, for such activity. Willingly ignoring a facet of reality seems to me unpalatable.

Another bit I’ve wrestled with, in regards to my budding alone-ness, is that I feel continually alienated from others of whom I have a deep, or  at least relatively happy history with. I feel that there is an unwritten obligation to my friends, my peers, my classmates, etc. all of whom which I’ve invested time and established bonds. They are not negative people, or dumb people, or even boring people. I just find that I enjoy solitude, at least relatively speaking. Even a few of my friends have gone down the same path. The reason this bothers me is because I have been brought up in a society where adult relationships seem to happen naturally and regularly. As a kid, I’ve seen birthday parties, cookouts, holiday get-togethers, and the lot, all of which seem common to the untrained eye. Perhaps this is simply a matter of examining the kind of relationships we form in the age of social networks; it is no longer a necessity to be face-to-face to be “close” with someone. Schopenhauer happened to further elaborate on my feelings about this, as I’ve constantly found myself fitting the mold as follows: “solitude is welcome, leisure is the highest good, and everything else is unnecessary, nay, even burdensome. This is the only type of man whom it can be said that his centre of gravity is entirely in himself; which explains why it is that people of this sort–and they are very rare–no matter how excellent their character may be, do not show that warm and unlimited interest in friends, family, and the community in general, of which others are so often capable; for if they have only themselves they are not inconsolable for the loss of everything else. This gives an isolation to their character, which is all the more effective since other people never really quite satisfy them, as being, on the whole, of a different nature: nay more, since this difference is constantly forcing itself upon their notice, they get accustomed to move about amongst mankind as alien beings, and in thinking of humanity in general, to say they instead of we.” Nail on the head.

Schopenhauer was wrong about a lot of things: women, “negroes,” and the lot. But I could not have described my feelings better. Solitude is only “welcome,” not a requirement for my comfort. Solitude allows for control over one’s environment, such as putting on headphones at the gym or reading a book in public. One can be alone with others. Leisure is indeed “the highest good,” as almost all my efforts are spent in pursuing that leisure. It is not “happiness” at the top of my hierarchy of ends, it is leisure, or as I might amend, “liberty.” (Not a Libertarian.) Everything apart from solitude and liberty is highly unwelcome. Solitude allows one to selectively be with and without. Liberty allows one to be active or passive, at one’s own prerogative. The reason these two sit so high on my list is because they are scarce in our society. Work is a necessary evil, one which taxes us dry of energy, which places us in forced relation to others with no concern for our commonalities. In the workplace, economics are all that matters.

By finding the “centre of gravity” in one’s self, I think Schopenhauer is pointing at one of the budding ideas which led me to pursue Philosophy as a discipline: Autonomy. All free will issues aside, there is an illusion in modern America that we choose what we value. In reality, we are handed a deck of cards to shuffle through and pick from, then hand the rest of the cards back to the dealer. Our options are always open, but advertising and marketing leave our options narrowly accessible. To uncover the “centre of gravity” in one’s self, there must be a moment of awakening, a moment of, “oh, shit. I’ve been deceiving myself this whole time.” That realization led me into philosophy, and to becoming more careful about what I consume.